What was once a breezeway for horse carriages and buggies now represents one of Tennessee's coolest areas to shop, listen to stories come to life, and grab a bite of local southern cuisine.
Tannery Knobs: A look into the future of Mountain Biking in Johnson City, TN
Mountain biking is on the rise in Tennessee mountain town, Johnson City. Yes, the town from Wagon Wheel that is in fact actually East from the Cumberland Gap. Surrounded by Knoxville, Boone, Pisgah, and within the Appalachian Mountains, JC is a stone’s throw away from world class riding in every direction. With Tannery Knobs, Johnson City is looking to add their name to the list of “Must Ride” areas in this region.
Sunday morning, I stood with Chad Wolfe, of the Tannery Knobs Task Force, on a flat section at the top of the knob where the pump track will soon be built. The beauty of the view overlooking Johnson City towered by Buffalo Mountain poised in front of the Appalachian range cannot be justifiably captured in any photo. Over 40 acres of land was donated by the Summers family of Johnson City for this project. What makes Tannery Knobs so unique is the site location. The trailhead sits less than a mile from Yee-Haw Brewery & White Duck Taco (as any mountain biker knows, beer & tacos are dietary staples). There will be parking and amenities at the trailhead, however, Tannery Knobs is aiming to be a “ride-to” destination from Downtown Johnson City.
“It's about the experience. I'm coming here, I don't care if it's right after work, with myself or with five of my friends we're going to get some hot laps and then obviously we're going to go downtown and shop, eat, & drink at the breweries. I mean it's an experience, a very European experience” -Chad Wolfe, Tannery Knobs Task Force.
While bike parks are no new concept, Tannery Knobs wants riders to view it as more of a playground than a trail network. Rather than on how many miles of trail riders have available to them, Tannery Knobs will put emphasis on how many ways a rider can choose to descent. This will offer a unique approach outside of other bike parks in the region such as Rocky Knob in Boone or Urban Wilderness in Knoxville. The trails will always intersect on an upward slope, so it acts as a natural speed check. This will help riders prevent collision by not being able to come into intersections at high speed.
The park is designed to progress riders’ skill levels by including different features such as rock rolls and natural gaps, purposefully integrated into the trail so beginner riders may not even notice as they ride past them. This will allow less experienced riders to focus on what is ahead of them, without mentally intimidating them, while more aggressive riders will be able to seek these side hits out. This concept is very easy to imagine when you start to picture it like a ski resort. Also, like a ski resort, all trails will be directional allowing bikers to ride downhill while trail runners run up hill.
“This is a bike park and the difference between this and a Ride Center is the playground aspect. We're building amenities along the trail systems in a specific places. There's not a rock up here that's not there on purpose, it does something. Everything is planned on top of that. It's very much a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ experience” -Chad Wolfe, Tannery Knobs Task Force.
The Tannery Knobs Task Force knew that this type of project couldn’t be built purely on volunteer work alone. So they brought in arguably the best in the industry, Trail Solutions by IMBA. The goal, to grow riders and provide a mountain bike park for riders of all abilities, can be seen already by walking the still being developed trails. With that in mind, the crews work to develop trails and features to keep riders progressing, while having fun. Near the pump track at the top will be a skills park that primarily uses rock features. Riders will be able to roll, ride, and drop rocks to help progress to the next level all before even leaving the parking lot area, which will also double as an observation zone. This area will serve as a spot parents can watch a NICA race, space vendors can use for events, or a staging area for group rides. At the same time, more advanced riders looking for true bike park type riding are going to feel right at home too.
“Perception of how aggressive trails are marketed does a terrible job of the whole thing because everything you see is a young male drinking an energy drink & skidding around turns. Which really does damage trails. By the way, nobody does that right? So stop pretending like we're all riding Red Bull rampage kind of stuff, these parks are an opportunity to just stop that stereotype.” Chad Wolfe, Tannery Knobs Task Force. “So that's what I think the story is here. Yes it's an amazing trail that is going to reset what most people expect mountain bike trails might be like, it's going to take people who want mountain looking things and now understand that we're surrounded by some of the country’s best mountain biking. But it also has the economic boost for the city by building a park like this which nobody else has. It's right in town and other parks, even though they may have an amazing facility, with a giant climb that gets you that beautiful fifteen minute descent on the other side, but that's very different than what we're doing here.”
Tannery Knobs is slated to open between Thanksgiving and Christmas with two complete trails to descend and another to get back to the top. Due to the unique climate Northeast Tennessee has to offer, Tannery Knobs has the potential to be rideable at least 10 months out of the year, depending on snowfall or if you ride a fat bike.
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This weekend, my family and I took a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It felt invigorating knowing that we had nowhere to be and no time to be there by. It felt moving. Fog lay thick in the open air that surrounded us as we took each mile by surprise. Rain fell from above, beginning with a trickle and never coming to a complete hault throughout the uncounted minutes of our day. We followed the asphalt path up several feet of elevation gain to what is deemed “The highest point east of the Mississippi River.” AKA: Mt. Mitchell which sits at 6,683’. It’s no 14er, but from ground up you will see a resembling change in elevation putting you up in the clouds with a 360 breathtaking view of mountain peaks in every direction. However, on this day we had a 360 view of breathtaking fog.
It was beautiful and a unique way to experience the tallest peak in this region of the country. Ghostly silhouettes of fir and spruce tress lurked along the path to the top of the mountain, where Elisha Mitchell himself lay buried in a weather resistant casket. What a legendary way to be remembered, “Here lies in the hope of a blessed resurrection the body of the Rev Elisha Mitchell D.D. who after thirty nine years a professor in the University of North Carolina lost his life in the scientific exploration of this mountain, in the sixty forth year of his age. June 27 1857.” I read this three times back to back in awe. Reverend Mitchell died doing what he loved while pursuing the “scientific exploration” of Mt. Mitchell.
To me, that is one of the coolest and most inspiring stories I have ever encountered. And in an unjustifiably short summation, Rev Mitchell’s body was found at the base of a waterfall by a bear hunter by the name of “Big Tom Wilson.” History tells us that Mitchell had returned to the Black Mountains to check his data and and take new measurements regarding the peak of the mountain and unfortunately slipped and fell into a waterfall and drowned. Elisha Mitchell died doing what he loved, and I believe that shows in vibrant colors as one reads the plaque that sits upon his casket containing the bones of a scientist who followed his passion to the death of what he believed in and in return, a mountain was named after him.
Here my family was, lollygagging along the Blue Ridge Parkway and having a spectacular relaxing rainy day observing the fall colors throughout the Appalachian Mountains, and we stumble upon a brilliant side trip up the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. Along each mile of this day trip, I was mindfully appreciative of the present moments being enjoyed with my family. Vibrant hues of orange, red, and yellow leaves seemed to create an abstract blur as we drove down the winding roads of the parkway. We had nowhere to be. We followed the road and allowed it to take us where it may. In those moments, I felt a familiar feeling. It reminded me of a feeling I once had where I followed the open road to nowhere. A feeling that I have felt fewer times with age. It is a hard feeling to describe unless you have felt it and have been aware of feeling it. The feeling I am trying to describe here is - freedom. This weekend, I felt free. I felt like I was in charge of my life and all the while, I was free of making decisions. Time seemed to swiftly elude meaning, as we were not expected to be anywhere except where we were in those moments. We took a branch off the main road and ended up at a natural mineral museum.
We stopped for coffee in a rustic lodge and even allowed ourselves a few spare moments to relax and rock back-n-forth in wooden chairs behind windows by a fireplace, and simply observe the rainfall. The wind swayed the trees, still appearing as silhouettes, as we just sat there in silence. I felt more productive in this silent moment of observing wet trees than I have literally ever felt a day spent behind a computer screen in the office. And in irony as I sit behind this screen writing this now, I am reliving the moment of tree gazing.
You know how at the end of a South Park episode, there is a corny message meant to take away from all the sarcasm? Well, this is my message: I hope you are able to do what makes you feel alive and real and in the moment. Because, the feeling you get is like no other. I hope that each and every person in the world is able to feel that uncanny feeling of freedom wherever they may be and whatever circumstance their life may present them in. The only thing is that once you feel it, once you feel what true freedom is, you may find that it is difficult to accept anything else.
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